For years, managers have, in effect, been trying to get humans to act like robots by structuring, routinizing, and measuring work -- all under the guise of organizational efficiency. Automation software that is being developed today enables a reversal of this process; it allows companies to use software robots to amplify and augment distinctive human strengths, and in the process it enables large economic gains and more satisfying work.
Although the term “robot” connotes visions of electromechanical machines that perform human tasks, the term as it relates to service automation refers to something less threatening: software that performs repetitive and dreary service tasks previously performed by humans, so that humans can focus on more unstructured and interesting tasks.
In this article, authors Mary C. Lacity and Leslie P. Willcocks focus on “robotic process automation” -- software tools and platforms that deal with structured data, rules-based processes, and deterministic outcomes. They focus on this area (as opposed to more advanced automation technology known as “cognitive automation”) because this is where most companies begin their service automation journeys. Currently, companies use robotic process automation for tasks such as those associated with validating the sale of insurance premiums, generating utility bills, paying health care insurance claims, keeping employee records up-to-date, and even generating news stories.
In one case, the authors describe how a business process and technology services provider helped an insurance industry client automate a multistep process for processing premiums for new insurance policies. Humans still handle the unstructured parts of the work. However, the structured parts of the process, including finding errors, retrieving the online data, creating the official sales record, and notifying insurance brokers when the process is complete, are now managed by the robotic process automation software.
By studying organizations that were early adopters in deploying software robots, the authors were able to identify three ways the companies generated tangible benefits: (1) by developing an approach to service automation supported by top management; (2) by initiating effective processes that deliver value to customers and employees; and (3) by building enterprisewide skills and capabilities. The authors found that business operations groups tend to be in the best position to select tasks that are most suitable for automation and to prioritize automation projects that will yield the best outcomes for customers and employees. However, IT can be an important contributor to the success of automation programs. The authors also found that companies that captured the full benefits of service automation had a long-term view.